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Learn About Islam

By Jay Tolson

Posted Sunday, December 17, 2006

Still don't know the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? Wonder why you should when some of your top intelligence leaders don't either?

Shame on them for professional incompetence. But shame on us if we don't attempt to know more about our global neighbors, particularly when the neighborhood is changing. While 1 in 5 people in the world today is Muslim, many projections have Muslims outnumbering Christians by 2025.

To acquire a basic Islamic literacy, you might begin with a good general history of Islamic religion and civilization (Marshall Hodgson's magisterial Venture of Islam or Karen Armstrong's lighter Islam: A Short History) or a biography of the prophet (Michael Cook's Muhammad is excellent) or almost any book by Bernard Lewis. John Kaltner, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, suggests focusing on six themes:

Islam's diversity and complexity. In addition to understanding differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, learn something about other movements, including the Sufi mystical tradition, and be aware of how much Islam has been influenced by non-Arab cultures.

A religion of orthopraxy. Correct actions begin with the "Five Pillars" of the faith. Good Muslims attest to their belief in one God, pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, give alms to the poor, and, if able, make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Respect for Judaism and Christianity. Islam has always respected the other two Abrahamic religions. But small differences and resentments can lead to great tensions, even hatred.

The lack of clear separation between religion and state. The mosque-state question is particularly difficult when it comes to the interpretation of Islamic law. On this, see legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl's excellent book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists.

The lack of a religious hierarchy. Though this must be qualified in respect to the Shiite tradition, Islam has no official clergy-one reason why it is hard to say what is, or is not, correctly Islamic.

The many meanings of jihad. It applies only secondarily to armed struggle against the infidels. The greater jihad refers to one's inner spiritual struggle to be a good Muslim.

Master those topics and you're not just a good global citizen; you're also a few steps ahead of the average FBI agent



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